Can Missouri's Governor Holden Hang On?

Here's a familiar scenario: A politician elected by the narrowest of margins in 2000 by an evenly divided electorate now faces a difficult re-election fight.

His critics lob pointed, partisan blame for an economic recession, staggering job losses and inadequate education funding.

Sounds like Republican President George W. Bush? Except it's Democratic Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, running for a second term in one of the nations' 11 gubernatorial contests, who finds himself in this political briar patch.

Holden, 54, won in 2000 by less than one percentage point in an election tarnished by the tragic death of U.S. Senate candidate and former Gov. Mel Carnahan (D). After four years marked by some missteps plus roadblocks from the GOP-led Legislature, the governor is locked in an acrimonious re-election battle. First, he must defeat outspoken and aggressive State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) in what may be an uncomfortably close primary. If he wins that August contest, he must take on popular and well-funded Secretary of State Matt Blunt (R) in the general election.

"He's got a helluva race ahead of him," said Missouri AFL-CIO President Hugh McVey, a Holden supporter.

The Missouri governor's race involves high stakes for both the state and the nation. In 2002, the GOP gained control of both houses of the Missouri Legislature for the first time in a half century, and Republicans are eyeing a gubernatorial victory to complete their dominance in Jefferson City.

Nationally, Missouri is one of a half-dozen swing states crucial to this year's presidential election. Bush beat Vice President Al Gore in Missouri by only three percentage points in 2000, and Republicans are hoping that a divisive Democratic gubernatorial primary will dampen the prospects of U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass).

The GOP also is counting on coattails from Bush, who has visited Missouri more than two dozen times during his term, most recently throwing the ceremonial first pitch at a St. Louis Cardinals game this year. (Missouri has voted for every presidential winner but one since 1900. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower lost Missouri in 1956, but won the presidency.)

The governor and his supporters are banking on his close ties to national and Missouri Democratic elite, his fund-raising skills and his understated tenacity and willingness to scrap.

"I've been in tough political fights my entire career," Holden told Stateline.org. "The thing is, when you speak the truth, when you lay out a vision that people can relate to and understand your values ... I have found that people respond very positively."

Holden's first four years as governor, however, have been less than stellar. He threw a million-dollar inaugural party the most expensive in state history and left his inaugural committee in the red. His 2003 veto of a concealed-carry gun law, popular with rural voters, was overridden by the GOP-controlled Legislature. Holden also angered Republican legislators by signing an executive order giving state workers collective bargaining rights.

Holden's biggest problem has been the national recession. The state lost more than 77,000 jobs during his first two years, mostly in the automotive manufacturing and airline industries.

Holden counters that the state has created 27,000 new jobs in the past year. "We created more jobs in 2003 than any of the states that border Missouri, ... more jobs than all but seven states in the nation."

What may stick in voters' craws is an ongoing tussle over education funding. To balance the state budget, Holden cut school funding last year after two failed attempts to force tax increases through the Legislature. Republicans resisted new taxes and insisted that the governor use $115 million in state reserves.

The stalemate spurred local tax increases or bond measures for schools in more than 100 Missouri school districts this year, and soured some parents and educators on both the governor and Republican legislative leaders.

"There's confusion throughout the state about what the problem is and who's to blame," said Greg Jung, president of the Missouri National Education Association.

Holden is not a charismatic leader, said Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell (D), but he's been a steady hand in turbulent times.

Nolan McNeill, Democratic Party Chairman in Barry County, Mo., and a former state legislator, said rural school administrators may not stick with Holden. "They don't know where to go." And Holden's support among Democrats, even in his rural hometown, is "soft," McNeill said.

The governor is not without advantages in this year's election. He has well-cultivated connections with state party leaders and deep roots in Missouri's conservative rural areas.

Holden, who still has his "out state" accent, grew up on a farm in the Missouri Ozarks where his family raised dairy and beef cattle and hogs. He was oldest of four children and the first in his father's family to attend college, completing a bachelor's degree at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, about 120 miles from his home.

From 1976 to 1981, Holden worked for former State Treasurer James Spainhower (D). In 1982, Holden won the first of three elections to the state House of Representatives, knocking off an incumbent Republican in the conservative area around Springfield, Mo. During that first campaign he also met his wife-to-be, Lori Hauser, who had volunteered for his campaign.

"I knew this was a person who had his heart and mind in all the right places," the first lady told Stateline.org. The couple has two sons, ages 13 and 9.

After six years in the Missouri Statehouse, Holden ran for state treasurer in 1988, losing by just a percentage point, but establishing himself as a future statewide candidate. He won the treasurer's race in 1992 and again in 1996.

Between 1988 and 1992, Holden worked in the district office of U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). Gephardt was not able to return a phone call for comments, his spokeswoman said, because he was traveling.

"The congressman and I have been friends for a long time and he has indicated to me [that] he will do anything I ask," Holden said.

Former U.S. Senator Tom Eagleton (D) is also supporting Holden. "He knows more about the nuts and bolts of Missouri politics than anyone I have ever known," Eagleton said.

Holden also cites his ties to Carnahan, who died in a plane crash just three weeks before the 2000 election. Some political analysts called that election a referendum on Carnahan's eight years as governor and speculated that his death sent voters flocking to the polls, giving Holden a slight edge over then-U.S. Rep. Jim Talent (R). Oddly, Bush carried the state's presidential vote; Missouri had not split the presidential and gubernatorial votes in the previous 28 years.

The governor attributes his 2000 victory to the fact that he has built connections across the Show Me state. "I had lived in St. Louis. I'd been born in Kansas City. I'd been raised on a farm. I'd represented the most Republican part of the state in the Legislature," he said.

Holden's links to the state's peculiar political geography may make the difference again this year, said Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University. While urban voters will vote for rural candidates, rural voters often reject urbanites.

"He has an ability to win because he's folksy," Warren said.

Although Holden has held the support of most party leaders, McCaskill, the state auditor, is challenging him in the primary election, criticizing him for a poorly run state. Early polls show the two Democrats running neck-and-neck, although Holden has a strong lead in fund-raising.

If the governor survives the August 3 balloting, he would face Blunt, Missouri's secretary of state and the 33-year-old son of U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), in the November general election.

"A lot of people like [Holden] and think he has put up a good fight," said Darrell Curls, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, which covers McCaskill's home turf of Kansas City. "But they don't all think he is the one who can beat Blunt."